Ha Jin, author of the National Book Award winning “Waiting” (1999) and the brilliant “A Map of Betrayal” (2014), writes novels defined by profound thoughtfulness and quiet, unshowy grace. His unadorned prose; cool, hypnotic style; and nuanced, compassionate portraits of characters seeking freedom and fulfillment while running up against bureaucratic, political, and personal obstacles have won him a deservedly admiring readership. His latest novel, “A Song Everlasting,” marshals many of these winning features in the service of a deeply moving portrait of an artist as an immigrant in a new land.
“A Song Everlasting” opens in Queens, N.Y., after a performance by the state-sponsored People’s Ensemble of Beijing, the last show in their five-city tour of the United States. Yao Tian, the “premier soloist” in the group, spots an old friend, Han Yabin, in the audience, and after asking permission of the troupe’s director, accepts Yabin’s invitation to go out for post-show drinks. Yabin asks Tian to sing at a celebration of Taiwan’s National Day by Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants; the carrot is that he would make almost a quarter of his annual salary for the one performance. Desperate for extra cash to pay his daughter Tingting’s prep school tuition bill, Tian accepts the offer despite knowing that there will likely be repercussions.
Yabin had originally come to the US because the Chinese government wouldn’t allow him to continue in a relationship with a foreign woman. Tian learns that his friend had gone to New York, earned his MBA from Fordham University, and is now working as an insurance broker with an office in Flushing. He has a lovely girlfriend, a comfortable apartment, a prosperous living. To Tian, Yabin seems like a “model of success,” and that success convinces Tian that America really is “a land of opportunities.”
Soon, Tian will find out for himself what life as a Chinese immigrant in the United States is really like. Back in China, it becomes apparent that he made a very bad decision indeed. The event’s sponsors supported Taiwan’s secession, anathema to the Chinese authorities, so he’s called in for questioning, compelled to do a written self-criticism, and asked to turn in his passport to his employer. He and his wife, Shuna, a history professor at Tsinghua University, decide that the safest plan is for him to go to the US, make as much money as possible for Tingting’s college education, and bring them over one day. He will be “a trailblazer for their family in America.”
The rest of the novel charts Tian’s new life in the States, one full of small triumphs, complicated pressures, and a freedom both intoxicating and disorienting. He must navigate the challenges of a long-distance marriage, the fallout from his torrid one-night stand with a bewitching but unstable woman, and the vagaries of the US job market. He must make artistic and personal compromises: work in home renovation when singing opportunities are few and far between, take a job performing in a casino to pay the bills, live with an unmarried female colleague in order to cut costs.
Hard choices between security and freedom present themselves again and again. Over Shuna’s objections, Tian turns down a $4 million offer from the Chinese government to never perform again. Yabin helps his friend “navigate through the hurdles and snares” of managing the intricacies of a career beset by outside interference. Through it all, Tian holds on to his faith in the purity of his artistic identity and his commitment to creating a new life as a free man.
Ha Jin’s novels are always informative about life in and outside of China for Chinese citizens. From a broken health care system to cancer-causing pollution, Internet censorship to religious persecution, the experience of Chinese locals is filled with danger and oppression. Ever present is the controlling touch of the Chinese government, often registered in intentionally demeaning and petty interferences such as canceling passports or creating false or misleading press stories. These are reminders of the Party’s claim to power over every aspect of Chinese lives, including especially those who have left the country, and we experience viscerally the impact of such toxicity and terror on characters we come to know well and to love.
Throughout, Jin reflects on the nature of freedom, what constitutes happiness, and “how the personal and the historical … converge.” His protagonist poses the question: “If a country has betrayed a citizen, isn’t the citizen entitled to betray the country?” and ponders what it means to “live a meaningful life on his own terms.”
“A Song Everlasting” runs a little long — some details seem extraneous or distracting and there are unnecessary repetitions — but by novel’s end, we are deeply bonded to its protagonist, who emerges from one setback, trauma, and blow after another with his dignity, idealism, and essential goodness intact. The quiet heroism of his life, his commitment to growth and art, his emergence into the experience of ordinary contentment are impressive and touching. The title’s “song” is the song of freedom, sung not loudly but persistently, as a tune that all the world’s people may follow, and which in this moment has a peculiarly potent ring for an American audience that has half-forgotten its pull.
A SONG EVERLASTING
By Ha Jin
Pantheon, 352 pp., $28
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’'